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The Cool History of the Slurpee

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When President Obama commented that the Republicans were standing around drinking Slurpees while the Democrats were busy creating real change in Washington, it caused quite a storm. Now that he's sitting down with the new Republican leadership, the so-called “Slurpee Summit” is the talk of the nation. While most of us have had one of 7-Eleven's frozen concoctions, there's plenty more you probably don't know about this too cool drink.

A Happy Accident

Like so many great inventions, the Slurpee was created by accident. In the late-1950s, Omar Knedlik of Kansas City owned an old Dairy Queen whose machinery was always breaking down. When his soda fountain went out, he improvised by putting some bottles in the freezer to stay cool. However, when he popped the top, they were a little frozen and slushy. Folks loved them and started requesting “those pops that were in a little bit longer.”

Realizing he had a surprise hit on his hands, Knedlik built a machine in the back room using the air conditioning unit from a car that would create slushy soda by combining and freezing a flavor mix, water, and carbon dioxide to make it fizz. He held a “Name the Product” contest and the winning entry was “ICEE.” With help from an engineering and manufacturing company in Dallas, the ICEE machine was redesigned and sold to a few convenience stores throughout the early 1960s.

But things really took off when, in 1965, 7-Eleven licensed the machine, but called the drink by a different name to make it unique for their stores. The name Slurpee was coined by Bob Stanford, a 7-Eleven ad agency director, when he described the sound made while sipping it through a straw.

Kids Love 'Em

Thanks to inventive advertising aimed at the growing youth market, Slurpees were an instant hit with the Woodstock generation. The cups featured colorful, almost psychedelic designs, and the flavors — “Fulla Bulla,” “For Adults Only,” and “Kiss Me, You Fool” — were edgy for the time. 7-Eleven ads were so popular that radio DJs were getting call-in requests for Slurpee commercials. One 1970 campaign featured a full-length song, "Dance the Slurp," written by one of the founding fathers of radio jingles, Tom Merriman. It was released on free, promotional 45 rpm records available in 7-Eleven stores. The catchy little tune was a huge hit at the time and its influence even extended into the late-1990s, when turntablists Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow used the song as the inspiration for their 1999 album, Brainfreeze. Because so few copies of the giveaway album still exist, copies of "Dance the Slurp" regularly go for as much as $50 on eBay.

In the 1970s, 7-Eleven started selling special cups with images of sports stars, comic book characters, early video games, and even rock bands. The cups kept kids coming back to complete the entire collection. Later, limited edition Slurpee flavors started accompanying the cups to create a complete marketing package. This is a tradition that has continued today through promotional tie-ins with video games, professional wrestling, and extreme sports.


In recent years, Slurpees have come in annual summer movie cups and flavors. Dating back to 2002, when the tie-in for Men In Black II was a blackberry drink, the promo cups and flavors have grown more and more elaborate (and popular). The biggest hit so far has been the Iron Man franchise, with special collector's cups that feature 3-D character designs and a special helmet dome lid. They've been sold on eBay for three times what they originally sold for in the store. However, for The Simpson's Movie in 2007, they went beyond just redesigned cups and wacky flavors. Select 7-Elevens were converted to look inside and out like Kwik-E-Marts, the 7-Eleven parody on the show, complete with “Squishees,” the cartoon world's version of the Slurpee. The tie-in flavor that summer was Woo-Hoo Vanilla Blue, probably one of Homer's favorites.

The Slurpee Factory

You'd think the last thing Canadians would want is a frozen drink. But every year since 1999, Winnipeg, Manitoba, has been crowned the Slurpee Capital of the World. Detroit sells the most cups of any U.S. metro area, but the largest single Slurpee-selling store in the U.S. is the one in Kennewick, Washington, which locals have dubbed “The Slurpee Factory.” Overall, North Americans sip almost 13 million Slurpee drinks every month. And since 1966, close to 6.5 billion Slurpee drinks have been sold, enough to almost fulfill your dreams of buying the world a (frozen) Coke.

Happy Birthday to Us

Every year since 2002, on July 11 (that's 7/11, of course), the company celebrates its birthday with “7-Eleven Day.” Only in this case, the customers get the present — free 7.11-ounce Slurpees for the first 1,000 people through the door of participating stores. It's estimated that the company gives away over 5,000,000 Slurpees to happy customers on this one day.

But Is it Kosher?


In case you were wondering, almost all Slurpee flavors are considered kosher pareve (food that is neither meat nor dairy). There are a few, such as Diet Pepsi and the Jolly Rancher mixes, that are considered kosher dairy (due to the chemical tagatose in the artificial sweetener), while others, like the popular Piña Colada drink, are not certified at all. Some 7-Eleven stores get the machines themselves certified kosher, which the store owners use as a selling point for their Jewish customers.

Mixology

As any regular Slurpee fan knows, one of the best parts about the self-serve drink is being able to mix flavors from different dispensers. According to Slurpee market research, 41% of slurpers never mix their flavors, 37% always do, and 21% will mix every once in a while. The most popular combinations use the Coke flavor as a base, with a fruity mix on top — often Wild Cherry or Piña Colada. But of course for the really daring, there’s always the “Suicide Slurpee” — mixing a little bit of every flavor from the row of dispensers.

No Wonka Required

Some of the wilder Slurpee flavors on tap have been Grapermelon, Darth Dew (a tie-in with Star Wars), Bubble Yum, Banana Cream Pie, Mango Bango, Red Licorice, Purple S-Cream, Slurpurita Pomegranate, and Shrekalicious (a tie-in with Shrek). Most of these and other wild and wacky flavors sound like they could come from a factory run by a guy named Wonka. But in fact, most are the invention of the mad scientists at the Dr Pepper Snapple Labs in Plano, Texas. (Yes, they make Snapple and Dr Pepper flavors, too).

To create a new Slurpee flavor requires a savvy combination of science, senses, and marketing. One of their biggest challenges is keeping up on flavor trends, such as knowing that exotic fruits like acai, yumberry, litchi, and dragon fruit are becoming popular with consumers; whereas previously hot flavors, like mango and pomegranate, are now commonplace. Of course just because it's popular doesn't necessarily mean it will taste good. They go through numerous rounds of product testing until they get the flavor just right. But once they've locked down the taste, they have to consider the name, the color, and the consistency of the mix when it's cooled to the standard 28 degrees Fahrenheit. The process can take weeks or even months to go from concept to your corner store.

Purple for the People

For the upcoming Slurpee Summit, 7-Eleven has offered to provide symbolic Slurpees — red for Republican, blue for Democrat, and a new flavor, “Purple for the People,” which combines the two colors. So far, their offer has not been accepted, but some in the White House say the drinks could still make an appearance. Regardless, the pending sit-down has been reason enough for 7-Eleven to launch a massive promotional campaign in the form of the Slurpee Unity Tour, a cross-country trek from 7-Eleven's Dallas headquarters to the nation's capital, giving away free samples of their new purple drink to Slurpee fans along the way.


This isn't the first time 7-Eleven has gone political. Since the 2000 Presidential election, the company has run a promotion called “7-Election,” where customers vote by purchasing special red or blue coffee cups printed with each candidate's name. The cups are scanned at check-out and automatically entered in this unscientific, but surprisingly accurate poll – in 2000 and 2004, the number of coffee cup votes and the number of actual popular votes for both candidates was only off by 1 or 2 percentage points. While 2008's 7-Elections results were still correct, they gave the election to Obama by a landslide — 60% to 40% — when the margin was really only about 7%.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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